28 May, 2024


Universal Franchise, Written Constitutions, Party Politics & Abuse 

By Upatissa Pethiyagoda

Dr. Upatissa Pethiyagoda

It may sound heretical and ridiculous, but I boldly say, that it is only the last word in my title (“Abuse,”) is real, all else is piffle, confusion, and deceit and quite meaningless. Agreed? Of course not, – don’t be crazy!

Let me explain. More and more that I see happening around me, seems to validate this apparent heresy. I take a perverse delight in witnessing the demolition of myths and untenable yet popular, beliefs. It is astonishing to see the extent to which we allow ourselves to be so easily fooled. Often we seemed to be wired to accept more readily, thoughts couched in complicated verbiage. How often do we unknowingly accept concepts, merely because we feel ill-equipped to understand them? The lament at the end of a speech, “What he said must be mighty important, because I could not understand a word of it” is a telling truth. “Faith” they say is “acceptance of something you know to be false”.  So, on to this implicitly authorized heresy.

Universal Franchise

Franchise and democracy are conjoint twins, – one cannot exist without the other. Abraham Lincoln ( Gettysberg Address, 1863), is credited as having defined “democracy” as “Government of the people by the people for the people”  “Democracy” has also drawn several uncomplimentary references. For instance, HL. Mencken defined it as “based on the fond belief that the franchise, somehow transforms the ignorance of the many into wisdom of the chosen few”. He goes on to explain that “A politician is an animal that can sit on a fence while keeping both ears on the ground,” also disparagingly, “a good politician is as hard to find as an honest burglar.”

We claim with pride that we were among the first to introduce Universal Franchise, and thus to grant women the right to vote. If this universal franchise (which we have exercised for over three decades), was a good thing, should we be where we now are? What good if anything, If after 74 years, the number of women in Parliament is no more than about a dozen in a total of 225. Biologically, females and males differ only in one among 24 chromosome pairs. Therefore, in a normal population they make up half. We are probably there. If 50% at birth are reduced to about 5% in the Top Legislature. What does that tell us? Yes, we had the World’s First Woman Prime Minister, in 1960 with the assassination of SWRD in 1958. Interestingly, she is widely rated as our best (or least worst), PM.

Women can drive buses, fly planes, or fight Wars, but cannot (seemingly), be trusted to reflect the will of the people, who have chosen her. (Is Mrs, B the exception that proves the rule?)

Voting (exercising the franchise) by people, is considered the best way to freely select persons to govern them. An essential feature is that an elected body governs for a certain specified time, and then enables the electors to pick their representatives by an election.       

The concept of “one person one vote” has been contentious, as has been at UN Bodies as well, where the largest contributors have equal voice as the largest beneficiaries. There is some merit in both views.

If you ask anybody why there should be political parties, somewhere that great Nonsense Word, “Policy” will creep in. If you ask for an example of where “policies” differ, your conversation companion will quietly slither away. As RR (no! not who you thought), would say “Ung Okkuma Horu, Malli!

“Finding a good politician is as difficult as finding an honest burglar”. It has also been said that a politician is a unique animal that “Can sit on the fence, while keeping both ears firmly pressed to the ground.”

Politicians in our country are a paradox, they can be cheap while costing a fortune. They can ‘speak’ a lot, without actually not ‘saying’ anything.

So much for the product, let us examine the process. In theory, a “Democratic, Socialist, Republic” as we are supposed to be, should have certain procedural features. Leaving the “Socialist and Republic” part aside, how do we do as a “Democracy”? Pretty poorly in fact. The airy-fairy definition is “A system of governance, where the will of the people is correctly reflected by their representatives”. Such representatives function for a limited period, after which free and fair elections are held, through which they, (or their party) could either be endorsed or rejected.

Is the choice free? No, it is not. Candidates are picked by the Party leaders. The choice is never based on quality or merit, but by caste, class and criminality, spiced with “Loyalty.”

With umpteen “Parties”, many candidates are offered. Consequently, the ballot paper is “Paduru-sized.” Voting is a two stage process. Step one, pick the party. Then the candidate of choice. Enough that the parties and candidate are mere numbers, the voter has to have an enormous memory to remember both. This is beyond the scope of the average voter. Then comes the most crucial part. If the candidates of choice happens to be from a Party different from the one ticked in step one, where is the “free choice”? In effect the voter has dis-enfranchised himself, up to 50 %. Then there is this business of “Pooling” second or third options. This completes the confusion. “Multiple choice” examination question papers raise doubts!

Then the aberration (Mad-house) of Parliament is a scream. Academically sorely deprived, one can hardly expect even marginally tolerable performance. Good oratory is nearly extinct. Raw filth has replaced wit. Debates should be an expression of caustic but elegant “put-downs.” Consider that Parliament meets for around 100 to 120 times in an year (Less than a 2-day week), raises the question of “What do they do during the balance five?” Some (Parliament) joker, admitted that a day of Parliamentary pantomime cost us One Million! On many occasions, sessions are curtailed for want of a quorum.

Actually this does not matter, because the existence of the Party Whip, ensures that voting patterns are pre-ordained. Unless a “Conscience vote” (Secret ballot) is obligatory, there is no purpose in debating, voting, and expensive electronic vote countering, when the results are pre-ordained?


The conclusion is that ‘universal franchise’ is lost on us.

A Written Constitution

There are a fair number of countries that don’t have written Constitutions. They manage their affairs based on tradition, ethics and trust. While the other lot, feed on the garbage of legalities, and arguments on the meaning of words.

Our legislators fail in their primary duty of framing acceptable Laws, and instead device means of robbing or wasting public funds. Those who rob persons could end up in jail. Those who rob the public, may enter Parliament and go even higher. Exceptions do manifest. Scandals do occur, where a person on death row awaiting execution is scrubbed down, clad in white dress, perfumed and sworn in as an MP. Did not somebody say, “a Sinhala paddy farmer, washed off his mud, is even fit to be King?” So, this is no big deal.

There need be no further argument about written constitutions, when a person whose Party failed to secure a single seat, and The Chief himself lost his seat, thanks to a Written Constitution, ultimately wormed his way to become our ‘Head Honcho’ in this, our “Land like no other”.

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